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Anglican Communion shocked by West Africa Primate's sudden death

Posted on: January 22, 2014 12:34 PM
Archbishop Johnson was an Anglican bishop for over two decades, but was only elected Primate & Archbishop of West Africa in September 2012.
Photo Credit: ENS
Related Categories: Abp Johnson, West Africa

[Updated: 4.00pm London, UK time] 

By Jan Butter with additional reporting by Bellah Zulu, ACNS.

The Anglican Communion is reeling at the sudden death of the the Primate of The Church of the Province of West Africa yesterday (Tuesday).

Archbishop Dr Solomon Tilewa Johnson, 59, was also Metropolitan Archbishop of the Internal province of West Africa, and Bishop of Gambia. A popular figure both home and abroad, he died in Fajara while playing tennis - one of his favourite pastimes.

The Provincial Secretary Canon Anthony Eiwuley said he had received confirmation of the Archbishop's death from the family. He added that, in time, he planned to open a book of condolence to receive messages on behalf of the Province and the family.

Shock and sadness

People across the Anglican Communion have already been expressing their shock at his death. In an email to the Anglican Communion's Francophone Network, Episcopal Bishop in charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe Pierre Whalon said, "What a loss for the Province of West Africa, for the Anglican Communion and for us all." 

The Rt Revd Zacharie Masimango Katanda Bishop of Kindu in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Province's Primate Henri Isingoma also told Network members how they had been saddened to hear of his death.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby today wrote to Archbishop Johnson’s wife, Priscilla, and to the Archbishop of the Internal Province of Ghana, the Most Revd Dr Daniel Sarfo, to offer his condolences and assurance of his prayers.

He wrote to Archbishop Sarfo: "I know that many will miss Archbishop Tilewa for his boundless energy and the great enthusiasm he had for his ministry, in the Church, both in Gambia, in the Province of West Africa, and in the wider Anglican Communion.

"His gifts were not confined exclusively to the Church, and he had an active role within the national life of Gambia, serving as a member of a number of boards and committees. He was generous in his hospitality, and was always glad to welcome visitors to the Gambia, where he had served as Bishop since 1990.

"I know that all my colleagues, the people of the Church of England, and especially those in the Diocese of Chichester with which the Diocese of the Gambia is linked, as well as your brothers and sisters across the Communion, will be holding you in prayer and love at this time."

Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, Canon Kenneth Kearon said today, "Archbishop Tilewa was a big man in every sense of the word. His great height made him stand head and shoulders over others, but so did his heart. He had a great love for the church, and worked hard for the spread of the Gospel in his own country, his diocese, and more recently, the Church of the Province of West Africa, which he served with distinction as Primate.

"His immense pride in being able to represent his diocese at the Lambeth Conference of 2008 was matched by his love and compassion for those in any sort of need. He was a man of justice, and served with distinction on his country’s Independent Electoral Commission. All of this was rooted in his love for his Saviour. To his wife and family, of whom he was so proud, to his church and to his country, we extend our prayers and our sincere sympathy."

Anglican Ollie Sagnia was one of those who expressed their grief on the late Archbishop's Facebook wall, "Today we mourn but tomorrow we hope to celebrate your life and continue your work as you pass on the torch. You excelled at being a great family man and an outstanding leader, an embodiment of peace, love and humility. Your vibrancy, zeal and enthusiasm, blended with humor and wit, awed us all. You will always be our bishop."

Zambian priest and Director for Mission of the Anglican Communion Office John Kafwanka wrote, "What a shock to hear about the death of Archbishop S Tilewa Johnson. You will be fondly remembered for your service to the Lord and humanity. We prayer for your family and the Church in Gambia and the whole Province of West Africa. Rest in God's eternal peace."

The many other posts on Archbishop Johnson's Facebook page and elsewhere on Social Media sites expressed shock, sadness and a very personal sense of loss from people in countries including Ghana, Nigeria, the Gambia, England, Tunisia, and Sierra Leone. Several people even changed their Facebook photo to one of the Archbishop to honour his memory.

A man of firsts

Dr Tilewa Johnson as the Ninth Primate and Archbishop became not only the first Gambian Bishop but also the first Gambian Archbishop and Primate.

He was due to join members from across the Church of the Province of West Africa--from Cameroon, Cape Verde Islands, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry, Liberia, Senegal, Sierra Leone and The Gambia - at its Synod in February. 

A life of service

Solomon Tilewa Ethelbert Willie Johnson was born in Banjul, The Gambia, on 27 February 1954. He attended the Wesley Primary School in Gambia from 1962 to 1966 and then Gambia High School until 1972.

He started his career in 1975 as a teacher at Banjul’s Gambia High School. However, after two years he applied and was admitted to Trinity Union Theological College, Umuahia, Imo State, Nigeria. In 1980 he left with a Diploma in Theology.

After three years at The UK’s University of Durham (1982-1985) he obtained a BA (Hons) in Theology. Twelve years later he returned to Britain to gain a Certificate in Theology from Oxford University. In 2000 he became a graduate of the Theological Foundation of Indiana in USA with a Doctorate degree in Applied Ministries.

Solomon Tilewa Johnson was a deacon from 1979 to 1980, a priest from 1980 to 1990, and was a diocesan bishop from 1990. On 29 September 2012, he was elected as the 9th Primate of the Church of the Province of West Africa as well as Metropolitan Archbishop of the Internal province of West Africa. He was enthroned on 16 November 2012.

He was designated 'Person of the Year' 2012, by the Gambia News and Report Weekly Magazine who said his selection was because of his "election as the 9th Archbishop and Primate of the 38 member Church of the Province of West Africa (CPWA), making him the first Gambian Bishop to hold such a position."

He was involved with a range of organisations and committees both in Gambia and overseas including mission agencies; educational establishments; national bodies tackling socio-economic issues; and such ecumenical bodies such as the All Africa Conference of Churches, and the World Council of Churches and the Gambia Christian Council. 

Archbishop Solomon Tilewa Johnson is survived by his wife, Priscilla Gladys Johnson and three children, Njilan Johnson, Jeggan Johnson and Dado Johnson.